Grand Canyon is one of the most visited national parks, and therefore one of the most crowded. Though the landscape attracts precisely because of its overwhelming scale, crowds are funneled into just a few relatively small, developed areas on the South and North Rims. This leaves the rest of the canyon and its grandeur to only the most intrepid visitors. The trails that enter the Inner Canyon and access more remote areas of the national park are certainly worth exploring, but still only cover a small piece of the greater Grand Canyon landscape.
The national park is surrounded by 1.7 million acres of public land with no entry fee and fewer restrictions on use than the park itself. This means free camping along gorgeous trails and surrounded by epic scenery—and it's all just a bit off the beaten path. At certain spots, you can even have the rim of the Grand Canyon all to yourself.
Kaibab National Forest borders Grand Canyon National Park on both sides. You actually drive through it to access either the South or North Rim entrance. The forest and the public lands around the Grand Canyon get a lot less publicity than the national park, which makes the area a lot less crowded. In order to ensure that these lands remain minimally developed and protected, there is a proposal to designate this area as the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.
Within this expanse are tall mountains, slot canyons, endless pine forests, open meadows, serene lakes, and stands of aspen that glow gold in the fall, not to mention countless vistas on the Grand Canyon rim that are outside the national park border. Traversing this wild landscape are over 300 miles of hiking trails and many dirt roads, which can take you deep into the woods and far from the crowds.
While the touristy overlooks and well-traveled trails at North and South Rim are worth it for the classic panoramas, you should know how to quickly escape the crowds and find solitude within the national forest and public lands surrounding the park.
Here are just a few of the best places for an adventure that most people miss out on.
If visiting the North Rim, you can bypass the touristy park entrance and instead take dirt roads to Monument Viewpoint on the canyon rim. This is the start for Bill Hall Trail, which is a long and rugged descent for really committed hikers. Anyone can enjoy the scenery, though, because you can set up camp close to the canyon rim, where views are huge during the day and stars will blow you away at night. Monument Viewpoint is technically within the national park boundary, so be sure to follow all posted regulations once you cross over from the national forest.
Saddle Mountain Wilderness Area
Saddle Mountain is a highpoint on the eastern region of Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The surrounding wilderness has no roads in an area of more than 40,000 acres. This means that few people make it to the breathtaking, high-elevation overlooks within. One of the best is from Saddle Mountain’s namesake saddle near the Nankoweap Trail. Beginning from scrubland in House Rock Valley, the trail steadily climbs through a secluded valley into a shady pine forest, concealing any hint of the vista ahead, until the trees suddenly part at the edge of a different world.
Jacob Lake, nestled in the northern portion of the Kaibab National Forest atop the Kaibab Plateau, is known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Because of its higher elevation on the plateau, the area is heavily forested with ponderosa pines, aspens and spruce firs, unlike the desertous region it that surrounds it . The campgrounds and lodging here make this a prime basecamp for hiking and biking the nearby trails. Lookout Canyon Trail provides some much needed respite from the hot summer sun, while others like the famous Arizona Trail and the Navajo Trail offer amazing views of the surrounding area.
Important to note that the Jacob Lake campground and most trails near the main highway are usually quite crowded during the open season (May-October), but you don't have to go far on dirt forest roads to find peace and quiet. As with anywhere on North Rim, roads are often closed/impassable in winter, but snowmobiling and cross country skiing are options in the national forest.
Kanab Creek Wilderness
North of the Grand Canyon, Kanab Creek Wilderness is a remote area in the Kaibab National Forest that can be challenging to access, but that can also almost guarantee solitude. Kanab Creek begins in southern Utah and is one of the largest tributaries to the Colorado River. It’s path is marked by a series of canyons and gorges, many of which can be hiked individually in a day’s time, or linked together for an epic multi-day backpacking trip from the Grand Canyon’s north rim into the canyon itself. This journey can be arduous as the trails are not well-maintained and the going is quite rugged.
Vishnu Trail and Grandview Lookout Tower
Close the park’s South Rim entrance is a historic fire lookout tower. Beginning from here is the Vishnu Trail, which earns Grand Canyon views with a one-mile loop. Though it does not reach the actual rim, Vishnu Trail gains a high point in the forest where you can see into the nearby Grand Canyon. This area is great for free camping, as it is just barely outside the border of the national park. It is also the trailhead for a section of the Arizona Trail, which continues in both directions on its transect of the entire state.
These spots only scratch the surface of secrets in the great Grand Canyon area, so start with these then set out to explore for yourself the many gems that the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon have to offer. By skipping the entry fee and the line, you can experience this landscape in a way few people ever do.
Of note: The proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument encompasses the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, and would ensure that development is kept in check and that these opportunities remain accessible forever. Learn more about the proposal to designate the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon as a national monument and get involved in making it happen.